I Went Through the Trouble of Finding Financial Advisors So You Don’t Have To

by Christine Su

Finding a high-quality financial advisor is harder than it seems. Christine Su shares the long journey she took before founding My Financial Counsel, and what she’s learned since.

“I’ve picked a great fund for you to put your savings in.”

“Oh. Ok. One fund?”

“Yes. It’s diversified.”

“What are the fees? How diversified is it? How else could we put my money to work?”

He didn’t budge.

“Don’t worry,” he said, patting my shoulder as he showed me out of his office. “We’ll take good care of your money.” 

And off I went, with a two-page financial plan riddled with typos — including misspelling my name — that looked utterly elementary. It looked like a high-school book report on a Word Document: no charts, no graphs. I wondered, Was this really what I waited a week for? 

For those who prefer to work with a human financial advisor, I hope my story will give you a sense of relief that you’re not alone in your quest, and bring some clarity to why certain advisors, from certain channels, are a certain way.

That was my first experience with a financial advisor. I remember walking out in dazed disbelief. I might have been young at the time, mid 20s, and without over-complicated finances, but I know a case of “this is a small account, we’ll just do minimal work” when I see one. 

So began a year-long, on-and-off search for a financial advisor. I’ve since discovered great fiduciary ones, but the reality is that for many people, my first experience is not uncommon at all. And while there’s no official stat, I’d venture to guess that for many it takes multiple searches, over the course of at least a few months or even years.

Because let’s face it, it takes a lot of energy to meet and vet advisors, plus time to regroup from disappointing meetings. It is a large part of what prompted me to start My Financial Counsel. Searching for a good financial advisor shouldn’t be so hard.

Below is a summary of my year-long financial advisor search. A caveat — There is an array of cost-effective, robo-advising and DIY platforms nowadays that one can take advantage of, and I think it’s fantastic if you’ve found success with them. For those who prefer to work with a human financial advisor, I hope my story will give you a sense of relief that you’re not alone in your quest, and bring some clarity to why certain advisors, from certain channels, are a certain way.

How the search began

I worked in the commercial banking division of a large international bank back in 2014. I had extra money sitting in the bank. Instead of putting it all into my retirement (I was already maxing out at my employer contribution match level), I wondered if there were other ways to make my money work harder for me.

I was also at a point of research paralysis — I had read all the articles online, and instead of getting a clearer picture of how I should invest my money, I got more overwhelmed. Every article out there was based on each author’s own set of financial facts, and I could not be sure if they were all relevant for me. I started setting up on robo-advising platforms then abandoned half-way because I wasn’t sure. I felt tired of indecision, so I decided to pay for a human financial advisor.

Round 1: The bank

I went to the retail banking division of the bank I worked for, thinking that as a fellow colleague, they’d take extra care. The bank assigned me to a relationship manager. A relationship manager is like an account manager — they are the gatekeepers and main point of contact. Based on what you need, they’ll pull in the right specialists. (Or, more like the right salesperson…)

The relationship manager listened to my question about investing the money, then assigned me to a financial advisor. At banks, there isn’t a roster of financial advisors available anywhere for you to pick from.

Before he sent me over to the financial advisor, he gave me a tip — to make sure to ask for “no-load” funds (aka no-fee funds). “But don’t ask immediately,” he said. “He’ll know I told you. Instead, let him suggest some options first, then ask.” I thought that was odd, but I thanked him for the tip, as if he were doing me a solid.

The first session went fine. The financial advisor asked questions and listened: What were my financial goals? How much did I have, roughly? His initial take was that given I was considering using the funds for graduate school in the next five years, a lower risk investment asset like mutual funds would make most sense.

You’re. Kidding. Me. This guy just sent me to a terrible advisor, and now he’s turning around and selling me something I didn’t need, trying to make me believe it is an immediate need and opportunity?

I asked him what about other investment classes. He stuck by the mutual funds. They’re diversified also, have decent performance, and track the market quite well. He said he’d curate a few funds for me and send the prospectus to me. “You’ll see.”

A week later, I returned for my second session. You can probably guess what happened. He picked one mutual fund. One. I don’t know what I was expecting — remember, this was my first experience with a financial advisor.

But hey, he’s supposed to be a CFP. I’d imagined there’d be more analysis and tailoring in the allocation of my money, instead of dumping it all into one fund. I said something to the effect, and he assured me it’s not really dumping all into one fund, the fund is diversified.

“What about the fee, is it a no-load fund?” I asked him. I honestly can’t remember the answer. By then the alarm was going off in my head, and I tried very hard not to stare at my misspelled name and incorrect figures. I could have done a better job myself with the rudimentary financial statement summary displayed in front of me. 

As the financial advisor walked me out the door, the relationship manager popped his head out of his office and beckoned me over. He asked me how it went. I said I needed time to think. I told him how I felt the advisor didn’t seem to have spent much effort on my account. 

What did the relationship manager say? “Ah, I’m sorry. Yeah he can be that way. Let me assign you to a different advisor then.” 

Wait, what? I thought to myself. Why didn’t you assign me to a good advisor to begin with?

“I’ll tell the new advisor to reach out to you. By the way, have you thought of whole-life insurance? Let me tell you why it could be a great investment for you. You’re planning to have children right? Oh sure, not now, but eventually, yes? You’re going to have to get more insurance later anyhow; what people don’t know is that if you start getting it now, it’s actually doubles as a great investment.”

You’re. Kidding. Me. This guy just sent me to a terrible advisor, and now he’s turning around and selling me something I didn’t need, trying to make me believe it is an immediate need and opportunity?

I was done. Should have known better than to think my bank would do me a favor. Should have just asked my friends and family first. They would be more credible…or so I thought.

TIP: Bank advisors make money from 1) a percentage of your assets that they invest for you, and 2) commission from certain financial products. There’s nothing wrong about it if you are onboard with getting the financial products they recommend.

It’s like going to a car dealership — you need a car anyways, let the car salesman earn his commission. He’s doing a good job taking you through all the car models anyhow. Good bank advisors will do a free but thorough financial plan with you (free because they make money from commission or asset management fees instead). But just know that because of the incentive structure, there will be some bad apples in the bunch.

Round 2: Friend’s financial advisors from insurance companies

I don’t have any family in the U.S., so I asked around my friends and coworkers. If you thought this would be easy, think again — people are hesitant to talk about their finances. Completely understandable. Eventually, I got two advisor recommendations from two friends. Neither friend was personally a client of these two advisors, but they knew other friends who were. 

Here’s what happened:

The first advisor’s email address indicated he worked at an insurance company. I just had to pass. He might be a fine advisor, but I’m focused on investing my money, and I still had PTSD from the whole-life insurance pitch I got from my bank.

The second advisor’s email address was at **** Financial Group. I had no clue what type of institution that was, but at least it wasn’t a bank and didn’t sound like an insurance company. Off I went to our first meeting. It started off the usual way — she listened well, asked me about my financial goals, and as a plus mentioned examples of clients similar to me that she’s helped before.

She came with a presentation that showed her company’s access to all kinds of financial products, proudly saying they weren’t tethered to pushing any particular product. It was fine, and I was almost ready to move forward, until it took a turn. We had such a great conversation that she started sharing how she recruited a great team and mentored many advisors.

Intrigued, I asked her what she meant. She proceeded to flip to different deck, and I recognized what was on the slide she started presenting — it was a pyramid shaped org chart, with comments on each level of the level of profit sharing for each new advisor recruit trained. Oh my gato. It’s a multi-level marketing organization.

This **** Financial Group, one of the largest financial institutions in the world, was an MLM. (Subsequent Wikipedia searches on other major players revealed they were all similarly structured.) I just couldn’t. Yes, she might be a fine financial advisor. But an MLM, I cannot. I had to bow out.

TIP: Insurance advisors and multi-product financial group advisors generally make money from product commission. Again, there’s nothing wrong about it if you are fully informed and onboard with getting the financial products they recommend.

Round 3: Online search

Two channels I trusted (my work/bank and my personal network) were dead ends. It was time to turn to the internet.

Here’s what happened:

When I typed “find a financial advisor”, the first few results would direct me to advisor search sites that asked for my investable asset range and my zip code. Then I had to enter my email and phone number, after which I thought I’d get a listing of advisors on the next screen. I didn’t. Instead, I just got a thank you page… and five voicemails in the next hour, from five different financial advisors.

My contact info had been farmed out to a bunch of advisors whom I didn’t get to choose first. I was flabbergasted.

My contact info had been farmed out to a bunch of advisors whom I didn’t get to choose first. I was flabbergasted. (This is a big part that informed the design of our own search site — give the power of choice to the clients. We share the advisor’s contact information with you, not the other way around.)

With advisor search sites a no-go, I felt exasperated. I decided to string together an (embarrassing) bunch of non-industry-correct keywords that best described what I was looking for, like “non-salesly financial advisor doesn’t sell insurance”. I started getting a bunch of articles, and I started substituting a few words in my keyword search string with industry terms, the final one being “fiduciary fee-only financial advisor no product commission”.

Bingo. That search string resulted in a few new sites — professional organizations including NAPFA, Garrett Network, and XYPN, who have a member directory of fee-only advisors. I figured I’d found the jackpot.

TIP: Since my search five years ago, new search sites have popped up that do a better job Of actually showing you a listing. But be mindful — if it asks you to enter your phone number, be prepared for the possibility of advisors on that list getting your number and reaching out to you directly. 

Round 4: Calling fee-only advisors directly

Similar to advisor search sites I first encountered, I just had to enter my investable assets and location to begin the search. (It felt transactional, and this again informed the design of My Financial Counsel — you are not just your asset size. You have financial questions, we have an algorithm that searches for advisors that specialize in your demographic, your needs, and your financial knowledge.)

These directories had varying degrees of information available for each advisor. I had to create a spreadsheet to compare between advisors, toggling between the directory profile, advisor website, and their government registration. 

Thank goodness I decided to research further and realized fee-based actually means commission-based.

I called a few fee-only financial advisors. I started each call being straight to the point — I wanted to strategize how to invest my money. “Please don’t tell me to just pick one fund. Please don’t sell me insurance.” What were their responses?

  • “Yes, agreed. I left xyz institution to start my own practice precisely for that reason — I was tired of being pushed to sell products. It feels so icky to do that to clients.”
  • “I decided to structure my practice so I wouldn’t have to sell products again. In fact, I’m prohibited from receiving product commission. I lead with financial planning and strategy — if you happen to need product, I have brokers who can fulfill it, but I don’t earn a cut.”

It was a breath of fresh air. I mean, I still had to weed through the listing, and I even encountered one advisor that flubbed about being fee-only: “I’m fee-based.” “Oh, is that the same as fee-only?” “Well, kinda, I mean, yeah, almost the same really, basically the same.”

Thank goodness I decided to research further and realized fee-based actually means commission-based. I created an ultra-thorough spreadsheet, comparing their certifications, registrations (are they really fee-only?), experience, demographic expertise, and pricing.

I also created a list of questions I’d ask every advisor, as if I were a hiring manager. Why did you start your practice? Can you give examples of how you’ve helped clients similar to me? How are you different from advisors elsewhere? (Both the spreadsheet and interview questionnaire became the basis of My Financial Counsel’s advisor matching tool.)

TIP: Always verify the advisor’s background from the source — the agencies that actually govern or award the particular certification or registration. This shows whether they sell products or not, which you can verify on brokercheck.org. My Financial Counsel’s search tool uses the same website to confirm.

Results

In the end, I found my ideal financial advisor in the form of a fee-only asset management firm. I’m not here endorsing fee-only asset managers as the solution for everyone. Everyone’s needs are different, and depending on your needs, you will find your ideal advisor solution from a particular channel. 

In total, I spent 50+ hours across four rounds. It was exhausting. But it was so rewarding — rewarding because I felt like I had agency in researching and picking the financial advisor who best suited me. I was in the driver’s seat.

There is nothing wrong with your financial needs — that advisor just wasn’t the right type suited for your needs. Your needs are valid, your personal preferences are valid.

Know that you do not have to settle when starting your search process for an advisor. If you have a great recommendation from a friend and really click with the advisor, I’m thrilled for you. A referral from an actual client you trust who has a similar financial situation to yours is always the strongest form of endorsement one could get. 

But not everyone happens to have a referral, nor is everyone comfortable sharing their financial situation with others. In that case, go to all the channels listed above. Speak to each advisor. If something doesn’t sit right with you, just move on. There is nothing wrong with your financial needs — that advisor just wasn’t the right type suited for your needs. Your needs are valid, your personal preferences are valid.

Hiring a financial advisor is a big deal. This person will be privy to your most intimate financial details which overlap with your personal life, and you want someone who you trust. And who you trust is up to you to decide. Not anyone else.

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